In 2004, they were a team on a mission. In 2005, they were a team on fumes. In 2007, they were a team on top from wire to wire, the indisputable class of major league baseball and a seeming dynasty in the making.
YOUR GUESS IS AS GOOD AS MINE: Jason Bay (right) confers with Kevin Youkilis on the field at Fenway. (Jim Davis / Boston Globe)
And so here we are again, Sox followers: More big games, more excruciating moments and more bloodshot eyes. Beyond that, we really are not quite sure what to expect. At times this season, the Sox have oscillated from contenders to pretenders (and back) with astonishing swiftness and unpredictability, and it is difficult to guess whether they are a veteran team to be feared or a developing team on the verge of being exposed.
Or, perhaps, a little of both.
"Especially about the last six or seven weeks, I've really enjoyed how our team has gone about their business," Sox manager Terry Francona said this week as the Sox prepared to clinch their fifth playoff spot in six years. "When you seem to be going in one direction -- the right direction -- it's more enjoyable. I hope it's noticeable because they've been a joy to be around."
But really, what does that have to do with winning? Manny Ramirez is gone, his departure serving as the line of demarcation in the 2008 season. Not so coincidentally, that was roughly seven weeks ago, or about the same time Francona said he started having more fun. Ramirez spent more than 7 seasons in Boston, putting the Sox in an inordinate number of dilemmas and predicaments. Of course, on four occasions, counting this one, he also helped put them into October.
Twice, he helped them win a World Series.
Now, in Ramirez's absence, the Sox are what Winston Churchill might have described as "a riddle wrapped in a mystery inside an enigma." Potentially, they are good enough to win it all; quite possibly, they are flawed enough to be swept in the first round. There are teams that possess more talent, but none with the recent Red Sox pedigree, the one that gives the Sox the ability to treat the most meaningful games of the season the way Jerry Rice and Emmitt Smith treated another trip into the end zone.
Like they've been there before.
Nonetheless, by now, we all know this team's strengths and weaknesses. In Josh Beckett and Jon Lester, the Sox have arguably the best 1-2 pitching tandem of the eight teams that will be participating in October. Their closer has never allowed a postseason run. Pound for pound, Dustin Pedroia ranks with the very best players in baseball. Since the erasures of Ramirez and Julio Lugo, the Sox have played defense as well as almost any team in baseball.
The negatives? Minus a healthy Mike Lowell and J.D. Drew, the Boston lineup seems terribly shallow. Even with them, David Ortiz does not appear to be the same hitter anymore. (At least until lately.) Jacoby Ellsbury doesn't walk enough and Jed Lowrie strikes out too much, and you cannot help but get the feeling sometimes that Francona is playing Russian roulette every time he dips into his bullpen from the sixth inning through the eighth.
On the surface, Beckett and Lester alone are enough to make the Sox a championship threat. Give each a lineup with a healthy Lowell and Drew (and, preferably, a dedicated Ramirez) and there would be reason to believe the Sox could win with even a marginal bullpen. In Beckett's four postseason victories last season, the Sox outscored their opponents 34-5, an average score of roughly 9-1. A void of similar run support is much more likely this season, meaning it will probably be easier for an opposing pitcher to neutralize Beckett (or Lester) and put the game in the hands of the bullpens.
Clearly, that is not something the Red Sox want.
In this day and age, whether everyone agrees with it or not, there is the belief that postseason success has a great deal to do with luck. After all, that is one of the primary tenets of "Moneyball." Talent is best measured over the course of a 162-game season, in which strengths are reaffirmed and weaknesses exploited. For some teams -- the 1988 Los Angeles Dodgers and the 2006 St. Louis Cardinals come to mind most quickly -- a World Series title seems like nothing more than a fluke. For any team, reaching the postseason is a legitimate accomplishment.
"I've said before, the grind is the hardest part," said Cleveland manager Eric Wedge, whose club came within one victory of a trip to the World Series last year but long ago fell out of playoff contention this season. "Anything can happen when you get in the playoffs, but the grind of the regular season is the greater accomplishment, regardless of whether you win the World Series."
Just the same, the standards in Boston long ago changed, and not solely in baseball. The championships are all that matter now. Last season, in a moment of candor, Sox general manager Theo Epstein said a loss in the playoffs would have created the perception that the 2007 season was a failure when, in fact, the season was anything but. As it turned out, the Red Sox won the whole darned thing anyway, only inspiring questions as to whether they could now repeat as champions for the first time since 1915-16.
Is it possible?
Sure it is.
And at the moment, your guess is as good as anyone else's.
Tony Massarotti can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org and can be read at www.boston.com/massarotti